KABUL, Afghanistan --A large springtime offensive by Taliban fighters has turned into the strongest show of force by the insurgents since U.S. forces drove the Taliban from power in late 2001, and Afghan and foreign officials and local villagers blamed a lack of U.S.-led coalition forces on the ground for the resurgence.
U.S. forces are handing over operations in southern Afghanistan to a NATO force of mainly Canadian, British and Dutch troops, and militants have taken advantage of the transition to swarm into rural areas.
Coalition and Afghan forces clash daily with large groups of Taliban fighters across five provinces of southern Afghanistan. In their boldest push, the Taliban fought battles in a district less than 20 miles outside the southern city of Kandahar in late May, forcing hundreds of people to abandon their villages for refuge in the city and in other towns as coalition forces resorted to aerial bombardment.
The Taliban are running checkpoints on secondary roads and seizing control of remote district centers for a night or two before melting away again. In the most blatant symbol of their dominance of rural areas, the Taliban have even conducted trials under Islamic law, or Shariah, outside official Afghan courts, and recently carried out at least one public execution.
"The situation is really, in the last four years, the most unstable and insecure I have seen," said Talatbek Masadykov, who is in charge of the U.N. assistance mission in Kandahar.
But he said accounts differed on just how bad the security situation was, particularly after a surge of fighting just west of Kandahar in recent weeks.
"From different tribal people we are hearing that the Taliban are regrouping," he said, "and from government officials that security is improving."
One international security official in Kandahar, who has several years of experience in Afghanistan and who asked not to be named because of the nature of his information, said members of U.S. and Canadian Special Forces units had told him that they were "not winning against the Taliban."
"If the central government does not act and coalition forces do not increase, I think it will be impossible to say what will happen," he said.
About a week ago, clashes occurred in Uruzgan, Zabul and Helmand provinces, with the coalition and Afghan army forces reporting successful engagements, killing several dozen Taliban fighters. But local Afghans in Char Chine district of Uruzgan province said coalition forces had shelled civilians as they were packing up to leave their nearby village of Pir Jawati.
Eleven people were killed, including an old woman and four children, said Mirwais, a shopkeeper in Char Chine who goes by one name and was contacted by telephone. Two suicide bombs recently in Kandahar and Khost killed at least four civilians and a roadside bomb killed three men in a government convoy south of Kabul, the capital, yesterday.
Officials in the U.S.-led coalition say the Taliban suffered a severe blow when U.S. warplanes bombed the village of Tolokan, not far from Kandahar, on May 21, as part of a four-pronged operation by Afghan and coalition forces over several days.
The bombing killed at least 35 civilians, and immediately afterward much anger was directed at the 25,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, prompting President Hamid Karzai to visit the site.
But local residents say the public mood quickly shifted against the Taliban, as the Tolokan bombing drove home the risk to villagers who, whether because of coercion or cooperation, allow the insurgents into their homes. It also underscored the heavy civilian toll the fighting was taking.
Many Afghans said they simply wanted one side, any side, to bring security.
Southern Afghanistan, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, has remained a stronghold as the Taliban staged a steady comeback since their fall from power in December 2001.
For several years, they could field only a few hundred men in scattered groups in mountainous areas. Now the Taliban claim to have 12,000 fighters, while coalition estimates add up to perhaps half of that.
Even though several hundred insurgents may have been killed in fighting this year, the Taliban are recruiting ever greater numbers of local people, the officials said.
Many Afghans interviewed expressed frustration that the U.S.-led coalition, which showed such strength in 2001, is failing to stem the resurgent Taliban, and that as a consequence people were dying.
Col. Ian Hope, the Canadian commander of coalition forces in Kandahar province, acknowledged that his forces had been spread too thin over the past two months to stem the sudden surge in Taliban fighters. But he said that should change with the addition of more Afghan forces and now that British and Dutch forces were getting into place. "It will not occur again," he said. "It's dangerous for people to lose confidence in us."
NATO has deployed a 9,700-member force in Afghanistan that will grow to 16,000, with 6,000 deployed in southern Afghanistan, one of the most restive regions. While NATO is deploying troops, the United States will reduce its force by about 3,000 and keep 20,000 in the country under a separate U.S. chain of command. The U.S. forces will keep responsibility for the volatile eastern region that abuts some of the most lawless areas in Pakistan.
Though the Tolokan bombing might have hurt the insurgents, local residents say, the Taliban presence remains strong, and villagers dread the prospect of more violence. They complain they are caught in the middle of fighting between the Taliban and the government and its foreign allies.